Satire is a form of social criticism that often employs humor, sometimes very biting humor, to make its point more palatable. The various satire techniques involve different combinations of these two elements, humor and criticism. Some forms of satire use gentle forms of humor to poke fun at human folly; social commentary is indirect and often subtle. Other satire techniques can be more direct, accusing specific persons or social bodies of corruption and evil through very dark humor. Another form of satire, the spoof, makes fun of popular entertainment to point out larger cultural foibles.
An ancient format, satire has been used for centuries by artists and writers, who have always had a tendency toward social commentary. The use of art and humor to provide this commentary has often protected the satirists, especially in regimes where more direct social criticism would not be tolerated. The two main satire techniques are named after Horace and Juvenal, Roman satirists from the 1st century AD. Horatian satire is the gentler form, sometimes offering sympathetic portraits of its targets while still pointing out their human failings. Juvenalian satire attacks its targets directly and often angrily; both forms are alive and well in the 21st century.
These ancient satire techniques enjoyed a revival in the 14th century. The literary masterpiece Dante’s Inferno offered disguised social commentary as the poet encountered many contemporary religious and political figures on his journey through Hell. Boccacio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, later that same century, both poked fun at social fixtures of the day, particularly corrupt clergy. In the 16th century, the French writer François Rabelais refined these satire techniques in his novels Pantagruel and Gargantua. Rabelais’ books poked fun at society while telling entertaining stories and included bawdy humor, all common features of modern satire as well.
The Irish writer Jonathan Swift was fond of both the Horatian and Juvenalian satire techniques. An example of the former is his classic Gulliver’s Travels, in which a shipwrecked traveler encounters societies that cleverly reflect the social conventions of his day. Swift’s classic Juvenalian satire is the infamous essay “A Modest Proposal,” written when the British ruling classes were ignoring conditions of poverty and famine in Ireland. Swift wryly suggested the Irish could solve these problems by selling their babies to the British for food. The outrage provoked by this essay focused public attention on the Irish situation, thus achieving Swift’s objective.
Many modern works use these classic satire techniques. The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are all examples of Horatian satire. South Park, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report are much more direct and Juvenalian. Mad Magazine and Saturday Night Live feature both spoofs of pop culture and direct social commentary. The comic strips Pogo and Doonesbury used caricature to poke fun at political figures; editorial cartooning in general has a long tradition of this. Luckily, satire is protected under the U.S. First Amendment and similar laws in other countries that guarantee freedom of speech.